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Christmas Picks

EPOCH Editorial Board

In the spirit of the festive season, EPOCH's Editors present some stories of Christmas times past.

Io Saturnalia: Alex Rome Griffin

Photogravure of a drawing depicting a drunken reveler being carried away by his friends during the Saturnalia. The setting appears to be the atrium of a Roman household. In the background, a figure holding an empty urn in one hand gazes on from atop some steps.
The Roman Saturnalia - Public Domain.

Christmas in ancient Rome didn’t exist. How could it? For a fair bit of Roman history, Christ wasn’t alive and then, after his death, Christianity occupied a difficult position in the Roman world. This isn’t to say that we can’t see the faint ghost of the ancient world flickering in the yule log’s flames, however. The ancestors of modern Christmas are the Roman festivals of Saturnalia and celebrations surrounding the Kalends of January – the Roman New Year. Unlike our modern holiday, the celebrations for Saturnalia ran amok for up to a week. Slaves were given temporary freedom to do and say what they wanted (often at the expense of their owners) and a Saturnalicius Princeps was elected to preside over the carnage. The festival nominally celebrated the cult of Saturn and the commencement of crop sowing, but celebrants appear to have focussed quite heavily on the party aspect.

Modern Christmas is, depending on your family, likely to be a far more sedate affair. Unwittingly, though, we still hold onto some aspects of this ancient festival. Traditions such as Christmas decorations and gift-giving can be attributed to Roman practices. During these ancient winter celebrations, houses were decked in greenery (perhaps not holly…) and lights, and it was custom to gifts of fruit and figurines. The recipients of these gifts were often children and the poor, perhaps reflecting the traditional yuletide values of charity and family that many still hold dear.

How Jesus got mixed up in all of this is unclear, but it may have been an attempt to legitimise the novel religion of Christianity by inserting its protagonist into readily understood celebrations. Regardless of how Roman traditions changed over time, they are partially responsible for the ways we celebrate today. So, when you put up your lights, wrap your presents and honour whichever gods you worship, perhaps consider not only saying ‘Merry Christmas’ but giving a heartfelt and cheery ‘Io Saturnalia’ too!

The Wreck of the Santa María – Christmas Day 1492: Dabeoc Stanley

An oil painting depicting a ship, the Santa Maria, cresting over a wave.
The Santa Maria at Sea - Public Domain

The night of the 25th of December 1492 found Columbus’ flagship, the Santa María, navigating a sea as smooth as glass. In the darkness, it was impossible to spot the underwater dangers off the coast of Hispaniola. At the helm was a boy – the sailor tasked with steering the ship having shirked his responsibilities. All had fallen asleep, including Columbus. Suddenly, at midnight, calamity! The Santa María ran aground upon a sandbank, ‘so gently it could scarcely be felt’, and began to sink.

Columbus’ Journal recounts that:

… seeing no other course, he ordered the masts cut away and the ship to be lightened as much as possible … But as the water continued to rise nothing more could be done. Her side fell over across the sea … the timbers opened, and the ship was lost.

In the aftermath, the shipwrecked survivors were welcomed by the Taíno, the indigenous inhabitants of Hispaniola – who Columbus reported wept at the news of the sinking as they were ‘loving people’. Guacanagaríx, the local cacique (chieftain) of that part of the island, allowed Columbus’ crew to erect the first European settlement in the Americas using the timbers of the Santa María – named La Navidad (The Nativity) to commemorate the loss of the ship on Christmas Day.

Columbus, writing his Journal after the fact, claimed that ‘he knew the Lord had caused the ship to stop here, that a settlement might be formed’. But was this calamity or providence? Historians have questioned the events of that Christmas Night – asking whether the abandonment of the Santa María, in placid seas, might not have been a convenient fiction for planting a settlement to root Columbus’ (and Spanish) claims to the New World.

What is known for certain is that it was a Christmas Day that brought bad tidings for the Taíno. Within thirty years their population was decimated by maritime-borne epidemics, famine, and the genocidal policies of the Spanish colonisers.

Frost Fairs of the Seventeenth Century: Amy Louise Smith

A painting of people and tents on the frozen river.
Thames Frost Fair, 1683–84, by Thomas Wyke

The ballad Blanket-Fair, Or the History of Temple Street tells us the story of the 'merry Pranks plaid on the River Thames during the great Frost'. It's first stanza reads:

Come listen a while (though the Weather be cold)

In your Pockets & Plackets your Hands you may hold.

I’ll tell you a story as true as ‘tis rare,

[Of] a River turn’d into a Bartholmew Fair.

Since old Christmas last

There has bin such a Frost,

That the Thames has by half the whole Nation bin crost.

O Scullers I pity your fate of Extreams,

Each Land man is now become free of the Thames.


Twice over the course of the seventeenth century, the river Thames froze over allowing people to set up stalls and shops on the ice. These Frost Fairs, as they came to be known, were a brief respite from an otherwise harsh and miserable season. People would take tents out onto the ice and light little fires. There were fruitsellers and pop-up alehouses, and other merchants sold their goods to compensate for the money lost from trade. In 1685, the fair also saw horse-racing and bull-baiting among other festivities. John Evelyn – who you can read about here – described it as a ‘bacchanalian triumph’.

Marian Traditions at Christmas: Anna Drury

A painting of the Nativity dating from c.1400, Mary is kneeling in the centre.
A scene of the Nativity, c.1400 (Robert Campin CC BY-SA 4.0).

Every December, we see the Nativity being performed around the world. Whether you were cast in your primary school’s production as the donkey or the ox; a shepherd or an angel (I myself dubiously portrayed the Angel Gabriel aged 6); or in the coveted roles of Joseph and Mary, I am sure we can look back fondly on those winter school nights where we sparkled and shone!

Linking in with my PhD research, what interests me is how each of our iterations of the inn keeper or the Star of Bethlehem differed greatly in style and substance. In South America, the figure of Mary in particular is diverse in both name and appearance. Despite Mary being the patron of Spanish and Portuguese colonisers, indigenous peoples came to venerate Mary and assimilate her into their own cultures.

A model depicting Our Lady of Aparecida
Our Lady of Aparecida (Rodrigo Fernández CC BY-SA 4.0).

In Brazil, Our Lady of Aparecida (translated from the Portuguese Nossa Senhora Aparecida) is said to have originated in the form of a Black Madonna statue that was discovered in 1717 by three fishermen reeling in their nets on the Paraíba River (southeast Brazil). Our Lady of Aparecida was quickly embraced as the mother of the Brazilian nation and declared its patron saint. The significance of the Black Madonna of Aparecida relates to the afterlives of slavery in Brazil. Descendants of enslaved men, women, and children poignantly believe Our Lady of Aparecida helps them to grapple with their painful ancestral histories. Every year, around 12 million people visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, one of the world’s largest sanctuaries dedicated to Mary located in the Paraíba valley. For many, this visit forms a vital part of their Christmas traditions.

Carrotmas Pudding, 1943: Laura Noller

Everybody’s heard of the Guernsey Potato Peel Pie which sustained the population of the Channel Islands during the Nazi Occupation (1940-1945), but how did people manage to create Christmas feasts under rationed conditions? Follow along and create your own Carrotmas Pudding, circa 1943!

  • You will need 3 ounces of breadcrumbs out of your precious bread ration, which made up the majority of your calories under rationed conditions.

  • Mix these with 10 ounces of butter. That’s going to take your whole butter ration for two and a half weeks – bearing in mind that leaves you without any cooking fat for the rest of your meals.

  • Stir in the 10 ounces of sugar you’ve saved up from your rations for almost a month and pour over 1¼ pints of boiling milk, more than a third of your milk ration for the week.

  • Grate two carrots – if you’re lucky, you’d have a small vegetable patch in the garden so you wouldn’t have to buy them with the Reichsmarks issued by the occupying forces.

  • Separate two egg yolks and be grateful that the couple of chickens in your back garden haven’t yet been stolen by troops or the forced labourers brought to the islanders by the occupiers.

  • Given that spices and seasonings were all but unavailable to buy in the shops, find that jar of ground ginger lurking in the back of the kitchen cupboard from Christmases past and add a teaspoon of it, together with the carrot and egg yolks to the breadcrumb mixture.

  • Don’t waste the egg whites, beat them into stiff peaks and mix it all together before baking until firm and well browned.

Hopefully, you might have saved up more eggs, milk, and sugar to make some custard to serve it with!

A WREN carrying an armful of Christmas puddings.
A WREN carrying an armful of Christmas puddings - Imperial War Museum, Non Commercial License


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